Moving to Japan Tips: Stuff. To Bring or Not to Bring…

As with any house move the greatest stress, I find, comes with the juggling act that is needing to leave packing to the last minute because, frankly, you are using your stuff to live! When moving overseas, particularly for a finite amount of time based on a project or some such, there is (more often than not) the extra stress created by the fact that you have to choose what to bring and what to leave behind in storage.  This article strives to help you with that. Please do add your own thoughts to the comments if you’ve been through it, too – “moving to japan” is one of the most common key phrases that link people to this site and I’m sure it will be much appreciated!

Tip 1: Find out your shipping options early and take your own time.

The first thing to do as early as possible is to find out what your shipping options will be. If a sea shipment is not a possibility for you then, frankly, that takes a little pressure off since it rules out bringing anything really substantial and cuts down your need to make a decision but, then again, you won’t be able to bring anything substantial… If you are being transferred by your company you will no doubt at least have an air shipment but it is likely to be fairly small: whatever you can fit into about the size of 4 standard (tea chest size) boxes seems to have been common to the couples that moved over with us – hopefully if you have children you will have more and/or a sea shipment option.

Whatever your options, most international shipping needs to be professionally packed for insurance and import reasons so you will likely have at least one consultant come to your house to assess how much stuff you have and give your company (or you if you’re self-funding) an estimate. They will want to book it as soon as your company calls them because they may be competing for the business but here’s an important tip:
Don’t be hassled into doing it until you feel you can give them a fairly precise idea of what you want to take because you will be held to that quote with very little leeway.
When they call you, ask them what they were told would be the ballpark – at the least they will know whether they are quoting for a sea shipment as well as air freight.  After you’ve asked your questions,  make the appointment within a week to be fair but to give you time to do what you need to do. Which leads us to:

Deciding what to bring.

So, how to decide what to bring? Well, I’m going to give you a list of things you may have trouble finding when you get here but beyond that I’m going to reiterate my advice from my previous post in the series:  however humble or temporary it is going to be, create a home for yourself – you’ll need it.

Tip 2:  Take an unabashed emotional inventory

The study the day the sea shipment arrived!

Before you get into the nitty gritty, make some time for yourself and a cup of tea, grab a pen and paper and sit quietly for a bit. Ask yourself what stuff makes your home home. We’re talking emotionally here and it’s totally valid and will be worth the time however rushed you feel you are. Now is not the time to be tough with yourself or build some ideal about not needing ‘stuff’ to be happy – just be gentle and honest with yourself. My husband was honestly happy to leave all his books behind, if he needed something to read he’d buy something new. On the other hand, I knew that I had to have at least some books with me – it was partly rational as most of the books that I’d consider “mine” are non-fiction and are references for my writing projects but it was also hugely emotional: my books are part of what is home for me. I also realized that it was important to have my Grandmother’s china with me – it’s not hugely valuable or several generations old but it was hers and came to me via my Aunt and its one of the few family things I have – we barely use it but it’s here and I’m glad it is.

My festival tree amidst other goodies!

Don’t forget, too, that it’s not just about what you would miss having around if you were feeling down – think about what you do when you celebrate, too. Do you always toast with particular glasses? Do you have special Christmas decorations you’ve had since a child? I have a what I call my festival tree which is a cone shaped “tree” made in Africa of vines woven together and then dried which was made as a Christmas tree but which I decorate for all sorts of occasions – people think it’s weird as hell but it came with us!

Of course you should also ask the rest of your family to think about that, too. If they poo-poo you and you can’t convince them it’s important then maybe take some guesses yourself about what is special to them, though it’s best to have it from them of course.  If you come up with a huge list then you will probably have to cull it so think hard about what is really important to you.

Tip 3: Things you might find hard to get in Japan

Okay now down to what the practical among you will find the most important – list time.

Furniture (Sea Shipment):

Really only two suggestions here – everything else you will be able to lease in some form without too much trouble.

Your double (or larger) bed.

Obviously if you can’t have a sea shipment or you’ve one of the many apartments or houses in which a double bed would not fit then this is impossible but if you have a good bed that suits your back give HUGE consideration to bringing it. If you’ve been on a trip to Japan already you’ll have noticed that the beds in hotels are very hard and so are most beds in Japan – and I don’t mean firm and supportive, I mean H A R D. Unless you have a few thousand dollars (US $) that you are happy to spend on a bed just for use over here or can spend most of your furniture lease budget on it, any bed that you lease or buy on the cheap here will be a) probably two single beds locked together and/or b) a very firm mattress sitting on a wooden box with a single, stiff, metal-reinforced wooden board underneath – no slats, no yielding to your body at all.  A traditional futon in a room with tatami matting may genuinely be better for your back since tatami has more yield than the boards I’ve seen under mattresses – and is something to consider, too, anyway.

If you won’t have more than a few (say 20) books then again this doesn’t matter but if you do, and you have a sea shipment, consider bringing enough for the books you are bringing (keeping in mind the size of your new home, of course.) There are some ingenious space solutions here for books and CDs etc which are shelves but they are mostly quite chunky and won’t hold books much larger than a DVD case.

Appliances (Sea or Air):

Obviously if you come from a country with a different electrical standard (which basically means anywhere other than the US as far as I know) you will want to lease as many of your appliances as you can because you won’t be able to use them back home.  We decided some things were worth bringing over and getting a big transformer to power them.

Computers and peripherals:
First of all, our furniture leasing wouldn’t cover computer gear anyway and our consultant said that was “normal” so don’t expect to be able to lease the latest whiz bang stuff because you are in Japan. Also, if you get a computer here it will have a Japanese OS and need compatible software and it’s more of a big deal than you’d think. So consider bringing your computer gear in one of your shipments. We chose to fill 3 of our 4 air shipment boxes with our computer rigs – we couldn’t wait 6 weeks for them to come by Sea! (note: it’s interesting to ask people what they put in the air shipment – it can be very telling and if you find someone with the same stuff you know you have something in common!)

Ironing board
This sounds silly but Japanese ironing boards tend to be the table top type and the surface itself is also  very small so, if you plan to iron Westerner size clothes and want to be able to stand up straight while you do it – put your ironing board in your sea shipment or sweet talk the movers into finding some way to pack it into the air shipment!

Consumables (a little by Air, a lot by Sea)

There are several drug-store type things we were warned to bring and we have been soo glad we did! I suggest you pack about 6 months worth of these supplies – many Gaijin stock up on annual trips home and/or arrange for families and friends to send care packages at regular intervals.

Starting with the one that makes some blush to get it out of the way. We were advised by many that Japanese deodorant is “useless” and when you are struggling with the heat and mugginess of the Japanese Summer it’s the last thing you want to worry about. Since being here I think I have realised why the Japanese deodorants seem inferior – they don’t seem to use anti-perspirants. Most “deodorants” in Australia and the US (from my experience) are actually anti-perspirant deodorants – that is they control sweating as well as odour. I have not yet seen anything that was more than just a deodorant here (and the couple I’ve tried seem to do the job they are meant to do perfectly well) so that is probably the issue – nothing to do with Asian skin or being used to the heat!
Prescription meds: Obviously if you or anyone in your family is on regular medication you can arrange with your doctor to get a special prescription for more than the usual amount of medication that is usually allowed at once to ship it over (in Australia anyway). Just make sure you pack a copy of the prescription into the box with the medication and do not open a single one of the packets – do that and you should be fine.

Cold and Flu Tablets/Pain killers:
Again we were advised that cold and flu tablets available here were not as effective as the ones in Australia, I’m still not sure if it is true but we did pack a bunch of stuff like aspirin (soluble aspirin is something I haven’t found here yet), panadeine, naprogesic and lemsip. It wasn’t that I had a lack of faith in Japanese pharmaceuticals but more because I knew that we were likely to be in need of such medications at some point waaaay before my language was good enough for navigating the chemist to be anything but miserable!

Shampoo and Conditioners/Cosmetics – this is for the girls (unless you’re Japanese)
There’s just no getting round it, different races have different hair and I’d advise that unless you have Asian hair you either make sure you have uncoloured, untreated hair when you come here and use the most basic of products you can find or you bring your own. I didn’t and I’ve really regretted it this last couple of weeks as I struggle to find something to replace the single bottles I arrived with.  What does “struggled mean?” My hair is slightly coloured a little darker than my natural dark ash blonde hair so at home I’d use a colour care for the UV but something light that didn’t weigh it down. I picked up a Vidal Sassoon colour care here and I have been washing sticky gunk out of my hair for days! Seriously: 18 washes and rinses, the last 6 with plain body soap and it’s only just coming out! For asian hair to be coloured at all it has to be stripped to the point where my causcasian hair would probably have broken off and so their colour care conditioner is literally loaded with sticky product to coat it and weigh it down.

When it comes to cosmetics the only thing I’d say is that if you have quite sensitive or dry skin you may have a few, but not too many, issues here. The homogeneity of the society means that, like with the shampoo, they only have to cater to a small range of skin types so a) there isn’t much for Irish skin and b) as a point of commercial differentiation the cosmetics companies seem to resort to scent much of the time so if you are sensitive to that it can be hard.IF you have oily or acne ridden skin you are in luck – the Japanese seem to struggle with this greatly and there are all sorts of products to help out!

There are some lovely things here, though – matching skin colour shouldn’t be a huge problem for anyone because the Japanese can tan astoundingly dark but also prefer to keep the skin as pale as possible. At either end of the scale you won’t be able to get the really cheap discount stuff at the bulk stores (which includes SKII and great brands) but you will probably find a skin tone match if you’re happy to pay full price.

Well! I think that about covers everything – it’s a long post but actually if you count it all up there’s not that much that you can’t get here. If you just focus on making sure you have what you really need both physically and emotionally you should do fine!

Again, I’d urge anyone with experience to feel free to add your tips to the comments section and to those just starting this adventure – good luck and try to remind yourself every now and then that you’re coming to live in Japan! Japan! This is exciting!!


14 comments on “Moving to Japan Tips: Stuff. To Bring or Not to Bring…”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Moving to Japan Tips: Stuff. To Bring or Not to Bring……
    The second in my series of moving tips aimed at anyone moving here but particularly Inter-Company Transferees and their wives… This article aims to help people with the stress of deciding what to bring and what to leave at home in storage……


  2. i suppose it’s more or less the same procedures on the way back? ^^


  3. Well I haven’t done that one yet lol We were transferred to Sydney then transferred here! Many people have houses that they own and so are returning too so it is simpler. We are not in that position and will in fact be moving back to Sydney again on the same project before going overseas again as the project rolls out elsewhere so the same process will occur then (though without the language issues!) and the “going back” won’t really happen for a while!


  4. Good stuff, so far.
    For me, I knew I’d be in Japan for far too long to consider putting stuff in storage. I had a ‘fire sale’ and then asked my parents to look after the few things I couldn’t part with, but was hesitant to bring with me. And, even though I’ve been here for awhile and have no plans to return for good in the near future (just signed papers on a new apartment in Shibuya), I’m trying not to accumulate much. This keeps the stress level down not only with respect to personal property management, but also with not having to worry about what I’ll eventually have to get rid of and what I’ll have to pay to have shipped.
    That said, I wonder if I’ll ever reach a point where I know that I’m going to put my bones down here in Japan.


  5. Very detailed post. I bet a lot of people will be able to use this before making the move to japan!


  6. says:

    Sounds about right. I had the eikaiwa moving experience, so the process was a little more…skeletal.The cold medicantion isn’t as effective in Japan because US/Can. meds use an ingredient that acts as a strong decongestant (pseudoepinephrene). Thsi ingredient is illegal to import to Japan because it’s also classified as a stimulant.
    Books were my problem…I can never seem to part with enough books to make it light enough. I had to travel with only 2 suitcases there, but I did sea mail to send alot of my clothes back at the end of the year, and air mail to send back a guitar.
    My company apartment never had a real bed in it, just the futon and the hardwood floor…thankfully the last teacher had left a few mattress pads to build up a bit of a cushion.


  7. Mail is a great idea, Emi, thanks for the hint!
    That does explain the cold meds complaints – ours are probably just as good (bad?) then, as Australia made what we called pseudoephedrine illegal recently. People (mostly bikie gangs according to the media lol) were using tablets which contained it to make speed in massive amounts. Talk about ruining it for the rest of us, lol, I really noticed the difference (though I was also rather annoyed to find out I was taking such a drug without really knowing it.)


  8. What’s this business about bringing huge quantities of prescription meds into Japan? Japan is obviously an advanced country and has lots of meds. If you get your meds translated into Japanese names it is more convenient and might be a lot cheaper to buy in Japan.
    Most meds have different names in different countries. The meds I use in the US I have bought in Canada, Israel and India. In each country they have different names. Local MDs have books like the Merck manual that tells them equivalents. After one MD visit (which is often cheap or free, in my experience) my drug buying problems are solved. Buying in the new country also saves the hassle of customs inspections.


  9. lol Huge quantities – you’re making me sound like a pusher! We had no customs issues – you don’t if it’s prescription.
    I’m glad you have had easy experiences getting your stuff overseas, the advice we had was that others had not been so lucky and it might be more convenient to have enough of a supply to last you till you were settled and confident enough to handle a doctor’s visit. If you or one of your family members is on regular medication then even if your doctor doesn’t charge for the visit you will need to have a good translator with you which will cost money.
    I would run a mile from any doctor who prescribed my medication from a translated piece of paper without the ability to communicate with me enough to have a proper consultation.


  10. Nice writeup DBR.
    I have Neosporin (for healing cuts) shipped over.
    I’ve lived in Asia the past 8 years covering two countries and have always used Western shampoos.
    Deodorant has gotten better, at least in Tokyo, in the past year. Now antiperspirant I hear is much harder to find. I’m not a big armpit sweater so not an issue for me, but just the other day a friend who went back to the U.S. and bought some said how much he realized he missed being dry.
    If you are thinking of buying a new Mac, and you live in the U.S., most definitely buy it in the U.S. first, unless you want to drop an extra $200-300 or so for no reason. Same thing for a bicycle. If you can ship it cheaply, but it there.
    When I first moved abroad in June 2000, I had a single suitcase and a computer bag. Now I have a 1k apartment FULL of stuff.
    I really recommend bringing things that have sentimental value to you to put in your apartment. Every apartment I’ve lived in over the past 8 years I’ve put certain things that have a lot of meaning to me (but would appear as junk to others), and just having those things in whatever place I’m living at the time, helped to make it feel like home and made it instantly feel familiar.


  11. Every time i come here I am not dissapointed, nice post


  12. I’m pretty sure that Ernon’s comment is spam but I went to the site he’s entered and it was new to me but, as an anime fan, I will be visiting it quite a bit so I’ve approved the comment – this post is possibly a little old for many people to see but you never know 🙂


  13. I recommend that you try to bring as little as possible. With the exception of medicine and a few personal items you can purchase just about anything here. There are even a number of Ikeas now.


  14. Hi Japanese Words,
    “Pack light and buy everything” is advice often given to travellers and I’ve always wondered for whom it is actually appropriate: Paris Hilton, perhaps, or an Onassis or someone for whom travelling or moving overseas is their first foray outside of the parental home so they have not yet spent money on household goods which would be left behind (thus wasting the cost of buying them in the first place and costing money sitting in some form of storage back in the country of origin.)
    Yes, there is an IKEA in Tokyo, there are also Nitori (which is the Japanese equivalent and more plentiful) but moving overseas is stressful and most of us have budgets which need to be balanced and need to think a wee bit harder than “eh we’ll buy one there.” But then again I guess all that work preparing to move us over here, as well as carefully writing this article in hopes of helping someone else in the same situation was all just a waste of time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s